Among high-income countries, the United States remains the most dangerous place for women to become mothers, especially women of color.
This disgraceful distinction was established pre-pandemic, but the latest data show COVID-19 helped drive an egregious 40% increase in maternal deaths during 2021. Maternal mortality is defined as the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days post pregnancy.
The Worst Death Rate in Six Decades
The national maternal mortality rate jumped to 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2021 – up from 23.8 in 2020. That’s the highest rate in more than 60 years and a sobering reflection of the vulnerability of pregnant women.
The rates among Black women are particularly alarming. Maternal deaths among this cohort occurred at 2.6 times the rate of non-Hispanic white women: a startling 69.9 deaths per 100,000 births. Disparities have long plagued the country’s health system, but these differences are “of terrifying proportions.”
Across racial and ethnic groups, older women, particularly those over 40, are at increased risk of death. Income, in contrast, is not as consistent of a predictor. A California-based study found wealthy Black mothers and babies were twice as likely to die as white mothers and babies of comparable financial status.
Despite the horrible figures, officials report that upward of 80% of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable.
The leading underlying causes were mental health conditions, including deaths from suicide and overdose, excessive bleeding, and cardiac and coronary conditions. Infection, bloods clots and cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle, were also high contributors.
Overcoming the maternal mortality crisis will require ongoing commitment from all levels of leadership as well as targeted interventions, along with expanded access to care.
A Bounce Back?
Even though preliminary data from 2022 show maternal mortality rates might be trending down toward pre-pandemic levels, those rates were terrible, too.
America has a lot of work to do to become a leader instead of a laggard in maternal health care, but it’s a struggle the nation can’t afford to lose.